Back in Bohemia: the sun shines on a return to the Sudetenland
The Trip: German Sudeten Helmut Tauer was expelled from his homeland as a boy in 1946, along with his family. He feels no bitterness on his visit: even though it was taken from him, there is still no place like home
Helmut Tauer at the site of his former family home in Elsch, Sudetenland. Photograph: Derek Scally
Helmut, Else Sandner, Thomas and Meta Tauer and Franz Sandner in the restored Sudetenland church where Helmut and Franz were baptised. Photograph: Derek Scally
Helmut as a child with his mother, Theresia
The yellow mongrel bares its yellow teeth from behind the garden fence and starts barking at us. Then the black dog next door starts up. Soon the canine chorus has alerted everyone in Olešná, a tiny Czech village in western Bohemia, to the strangers walking down the dusty road.
This trip is not starting well, I think to myself, as I walk with Helmut Tauer around where he was born in 1939. Then the village was still called Elsch, until his family left forever in 1946, the last of the village’s 200 ethnic German residents. Now Helmut is back, showing me the grassy gap between two crumbling houses where his home once stood.
“Most of the rubble is still there, that’s why it’s so hilly,” he says. “Over there [he points to one corner of the small site] is where we buried the porcelain and a bit of crystal before we left.”
I’ve known Helmut, his wife Meta and their son Thomas for years. Helmut and Meta live in a pretty house near the eastern German city of Magdeburg. But, for Helmut, home is here in Elsch. After years of hearing stories of his old Heimat (homeland), we have driven 350km southeast, through a pretty rolling landscape, to visit.
The dogs finally stop yowling when we reach the back of the vacant site. Helmut’s round face lights up as he recognises a red-brick pillar as a bit of the old garden wall. As a warm summer breeze blows over us, I shiver at the feeling that ghosts are watching us.
When Helmut was born here, on August 7th, 1939, this German-speaking region, the Sudetenland, had already, in Nazi parlance, “returned to the Reich”. In reality it had been annexed by Hitler from Czechoslovakia, a move accepted by the West to appease the Nazi leader.
Their hopes of avoiding war were dashed on September 3rd, 1939, when Nazi troops marched into Poland and triggered the second World War. This part of Sudetenland’s history – as an appeasement pawn – is well known. What happened before and after, less so.
The Sudetenland, including this region of Bohemia, was part of the sprawling Austrian-Hungarian empire for centuries, then an independent Czechoslovak state after 1918. When the new government in Prague introduced policies discriminating against the ethnic Germans living here since the 13th century, it fired up Sudeten separatist sentiment.
Adolf Hitler’s offer to join his Third Reich was embraced by the Sudetens as the promise of a secure future and an end to discrimination. Such political wrangling took place far away from Elsch. Helmut’s father, Anton, was a builder, and was often away for months at a time, leaving his wife, Theresia, to raise their three children: Helmut; his older brother, Walter; and younger sister, Gerlinde.
Their modest, whitewashed family home had three rooms, with a stall for pigs and cows attached and about four hectares of land. Their house is gone, but the rest of the village survives: a collection of crumbling houses, some new residences and a church disintegrating quietly in a copse.
Helmut strolls down a shady lane towards the forest where, with his dog Mandor, he once gathered mushrooms and blueberries. The war barely touched Elsch until the US army rolled through on May 4th, 1945, he says. For the 200 German- speaking villagers, the real disaster was still ahead. In London, the Czech government-in-exile under president Edvard Beneš had secured Allied agreement to return his post-war country to its pre-1938 borders and expel all German-speakers to the west.